From the humblest of births in a provincial prison cell, Françoise d’Aubigné made her perilous way out of desperate poverty to a brilliant salon life in Paris, and finally, as Madame de Maintenon, secret wife of the Sun King Louis XIV, to the centre of power at Versailles.
In the winter of 1651, wearing old-fashioned shoes and a dress much too short for her, the fifteen-year-old Françoise stepped into the salon of Paul Scarron, infamous poet of the burlesque. Though she had heard others talk of his dreadful disfigurement, the first sight of him in person proved too much for her.
Overcome by horror or pity, she broke down at once in tears. ‘My body, it’s true, is most irregular,’ Scarron himself admitted. The celebrated scandalmonger, toast of the Paris salons, was seated in the middle of the room, his twisted body propped up and strapped into a large wheelchair, with a wooden tablet affixed on which he rested one claw-like hand. ‘I used to be a well built man,’ he wrote, though it’s true I was never very tall. But now my legs are at an acute angle to my body, and my head is permanently bent down to my stomach – I’m a sort of human Z.
My legs and arms and fingers have all shrivelled up. In short, I’m a shrivility of human misery.’ Françoise, wiping the tears from her eyes, stepped forward to be introduced. ‘To look him in the face,’ recorded a witness of their meeting, ‘she had to lean over so far she was almost on her knees’.
Veronica Buckley, author of The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: FranCoise d’Aubigne, Madame de Maintenon, was born and educated in New Zealand, and later studied at the Universities of London and Oxford. Christina, Queen of Sweden, was the subject of her much-praised first biography. She lived in Paris while researching The Secret Wife of Louis XIV, and now lives in Vienna.
IMAGE: Portrait dit autrefois de Paul Scarron (1610-60). French school, seventeenth century. Le Mans, Musee de Tesse.